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Flagstaff Unified School District’s year started off a bit rough with elevated lead levels being found in the water at Killip Elementary School, the decision over a new superintendent and threatening notes found at Flagstaff High School. Things seemed to smooth out in time for the new school year with new Superintendent Mike Penca taking office and a raise from the state for teachers.

FUSD reported elevated lead levels at Killip Elementary School in February 2017. The testing was part of a pilot program the district was participating in with Arizona Schools and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Elevated lead levels were found at one of eight locations tested in the school. The tests came back with a level of 17 parts per billion of lead to water. The federal recommendation is no more than 15 parts per billion.

The school immediately stopped all use of tap water in the building. Bottled water was brought in for drinking, filters were installed to remove the lead and lunches were prepared at other schools and trucked in. Water at all of the other schools in the district were tested and found to be within federal guidelines. Once the filters were installed at Killip, the level of lead in the water dropped to below the federal guidelines.

FUSD never did find the exact source of the lead, but officials have theorized that it may have come from the pipes in the building. The filters appear to have solved the problem, so no more extensive work was needed to correct the issue.

The year also saw the hiring of a new superintendent at the district. Former FUSD Superintendent Barbara Hickman left the district in March 2016. Dave Dirksen, a well-loved former administrator and Flagstaff High School football coach, served as the interim superintendent for more than a year. The FUSD Governing Board hired Michael Penca from Mason City, Iowa, to fill the position. Penca took over the position in July, just before the new school year started.

In March, while the Governing Board was deciding who to hire as the new superintendent, several threatening notes were found at Flagstaff High School. A total of six threatening notes were found at FHS over a month, resulting in new security measures at the school to protect students while the threat was being investigated. The threats were found in the girl’s bathroom and contained threats to three teachers and four students.

At least half of the students at the school being absent on the day that the threat, a “Columbine-type” shooting, was supposed to take place on April 20. Six days later, FHS students were released early after a sixth note was found. A day later, police arrested a 17-year-old female at the school in connection with the notes. The suspect, Zoe Sawyers, later pled guilty to one felony count of interfering with an educational institution and one misdemeanor count of threats and intimidation. She was required to complete a mental health court program, probation and pay up to $3,780 to FUSD in restitution. If she fulfills her plea requirements the court will drop the felony count.

Teachers got some good news over the summer when the Arizona Legislature approved a 1.06 percent raise for teachers. However, the funding for the raise is only guaranteed by the Legislature for the 2017/2018 school year. It must be reauthorized by the Legislature for the next school year.

The district also had a drop in AzMERIT letter grades for some schools this year. This was the first time in three years that the state had issued letter grades to schools after it started the use of the AzMERIT test. Flagstaff High dropped from an A school in 2014 to a C school this year. Puente de Hozoho Elementary and Sinagaua Middle School dropped from a B to a D. Flagstaff High and Sinagua have appealed their grades to the Arizona Board of Education.

Looking toward the future, Puente announced that it has applied to become an International Baccalaureate World School. The district hopes to expand the program to Sinagua Middle School and Coconino High School in the near future. This would allow students to earn an IB high school degree and a seal of bilingual education from the state of Arizona. It would also prepare them to enter practically any college or university in the world.

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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Education/Business Reporter

Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

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